Sunday, January 18, 2009

Jonathan Ball on Reviewing, Round 2

I really only demand three things of reviews, and feel that my demands are modest. Which is why I am so dispirited by the reviews I read.

Firstly, I think a review should actually describe the book. It is unclear from most reviews whether the author has actually read the book or not, the reviews are so lacking in real information. A cursory description is often given, so cursory that it may as well be excised, which then gives way to the reviewer's opinion. But I must say I care much less about a reviewer's opinion than I care about learning of new books.

Secondly, since I suppose we MUST hear the reviewer's opinion at some point, I want an opinion that is supported. I am sick of the vomit that passes for opinions in reviewing. I want insight and arguments. Books are serious things. They should be taken seriously. A review should, at the bare minimum, display that the reviewer has read and considered the book with an active mind. Not simply scanned its cover and contents and pronounced some judgement based solely on the "emotional journey" (or lack thereof) that the reviewer then took.

Thirdly, a book should be approached on its own terms. Reviewers consistently fail to rise to the challenge of the books they read. They deride non-realist novels for a lack of verisimilitude and they deride realist novels as depressing. Reviewers tend to display an utter and consistent ignorance of the breadth and depth of modern fiction and seem unaware that their own values are not universal.

You're right to point out that I am making perhaps-hyperbolic claims about "dying literary values," but my complaint is not that the reviewer's values are misguided, but rather that he seems unaware of these values and appears, to me, to be unconsciously reproducing them --- and furthermore, the unconscious reproduction of these values seems to me to be the sole purpose of this review, which offers neither an adequate description of the book nor even any half-supported opinion.

I just want to add that I think Geist are being good sports for printing this letter. You can find the original post here. I would like to add that I think Geist is one of the finest publications in Canada, and yes, as Jonathan points out, good sports about the letter.


Lemon Hound said...

"Thirdly, a book should be approached on its own terms. Reviewers consistently fail to rise to the challenge of the books they read. They deride non-realist novels for a lack of verisimilitude and they deride realist novels as depressing."

Yes, I think the reviewer needs to show that s/he understands the project first, that's enough sometimes, just to understand what the project is.

sm said...

I agree re "approaching on its own terms". It worries me to see books and poetry derided for trying different approaches of thinking through something with language. What good does sameness do anywhere? Why would it be a good idea to dictate what is admissable and not admissable as Valauble in literature if we see the danger of that sort of thinking everywhere else?

That's not to say that taste and preference shouldn't exist. Just that I wonder about people who look at a visual poem and try to read it like a lyric, get upset that they can't, and then deride it for not being a lyric.

Anyway, it seems like a crusade of taste to me, which worries me. My tastes tends to change, which doesn't really work for a crusade.

Jonathan Ball said...

There is a mean-spirited but quite fun attack on my review of a review over here:

Lemon Hound said...

I don't think many people make the leap between intolerance in terms of poetic form and exploration and other kinds of intolerance...many poets have extremely conservative views and would absolutely deny any such statement.

To be fair though, one finds this in all kinds of poetic communities. None are immune to such assumptions.

Lemon Hound said...

I'm glad it's fun, I'll have to trust you on that since I find it's not useful to ingest that mean-spirited nature.

I guess it's difficult to shake the mythology that mean is somehow more useful, or that it has more critical chops.

Donna Kane said...

Sina, apologies for posting this here, but I couldn't find an email address to contact you. I am helping with a reading series in Victoria at Open Space and would like to put you on our grant application, should you be interested. Thanks, and hopefully you can delete this from the thread once received.

Thanks, Donna Kane

donatoma said...

i liked Jonathon's line-by-line of the Geist review. i actually just finished a thesis a few months ago that was a study of the language of poetry reviewing in Canada since 1961. having read hundreds of reviews, i think that the problems (i.e. why reviews like the one Jonathan is critiquing) are linguistic / ideological, and have also to do with (i think) bizarre presuppositions about what a review is supposed to do. it's complicated.

Pearl said...

mean has no more critical chops.

That puts the finger on it. It comes down to one's view of conflict resolution.

Does one air everything and yell, maybe punch it out, and then we walk away all fresh and new? Some can. It's part of the romp of game. No hard feelings. Or hard feelings are good. It gives energy.

For others, that direct opposition adversarial engagement antagonizes, is a low grade trauma and the stress made can't be can't internally dispersed. Conflict isn't the ideal. It takes away energy.

Lemon Hound said...

Again, great thoughts. Conflict is in fact necessary I think. It's fuel. It moves narrative, it's a basic, fundamental need. Having said that, there are productive ways of handling conflict in narrative and in discourse. Basic respect is what makes even the most biting satires easy to swallow. It's when there is a clear, mean agenda to the sparring that everyone in the room begins to feel uneasy.

It's as if someone has changed only one of the blunt blades with a real, sharp, blood soaked blade.